Here’s what to know—and how to try to protect yourself.
Finding out that you or someone you love has any kind of cancer is disorienting, frightening, and generally a hellish experience. This is pretty typical no matter the type of cancer you’re dealing with.
But if you look at data on different kinds of cancer, you’ll start to see that some, like ovarian cancer, tend to be more lethal than others. In fact, ovarian cancer is the deadliest cancer of the reproductive system in people with ovaries in the United States. By the end of 2018, around 22,240 people will have received a new ovarian cancer diagnosis, and the disease will kill around 14,070 people, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
For comparison, although endometrial cancer (the most common reproductive cancer in people with ovaries) is diagnosed almost three times as often, it will kill almost 3,000 fewer people by the end of 2018, the ACS says. What’s going on here?
An ovarian cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.
But the prognosis typically depends on when the cancer is detected.
The five-year relative survival rate for all types and stages of ovarian cancer is 47 percent, according to the ACS. A relative survival rate compares people who have cancer with those in the general population, so this means that people with any type of ovarian cancer are about 47 percent as likely as people without it to live for at least five years after being diagnosed.
But in people diagnosed before the cancer spreads outside the ovary, that relative survival rate jumps to 92 percent—a significant and promising difference. The problem is that only 15 percent of all ovarian cancers are diagnosed this early, according to the ACS.
Unfortunately, the early symptoms of ovarian cancer often go unnoticed, if they even show up at all.
“Ovarian cancer is often diagnosed later in the disease progress, which leads to a lower rate of cure,” David Cohn, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist and chief medical officer at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, tells SELF. “This may be due to the fact that many of the signs and symptoms of early ovarian cancer may be hard for patients or their providers to recognize.”
Those symptoms generally include abdominal bloating or swelling, feeling full quickly when you eat, unexplained weight loss, discomfort in the pelvis, changes in bowel habits (like becoming constipated), and a frequent need to pee, the Mayo Clinic says.
Unfortunately, these are vague symptoms that can also…